Is Great … In Concept
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!!!!
In 2009, Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi take on apartheid titled District 9 released and took the critics and audiences by storm. It was a smart, brilliant take on a social construct that affected South Africa and the rest of the world till this day. His follow-up, Elysium, tackles a host of socially important topics, from illegal immigration, overpopulation and resource allocation, transhumanism, health care and income inequalities, and drone surveillance. It certainly does so, but the issues are often left to shine and grab ahold of the narrative when the actual script itself doesn’t manage to do so. That is indeed the most frustrating part of watching the film. There is so much the film offers to the modern mind, but it falls back on conventional action to drive the plot forward and ultimately it leaves a frustrating experience all together. The plot essentially revolves around Max Da Costa, a former car thief who is exposed to radiation in his workplace. He resides in now filthy 2154 Los Angeles, an uncommon sight in the future Earth that has become ravaged by poverty and lack of resources. The wealthy have all fled to a star-like utopia called Elysium that lies in space and shines like a condescending beacon of hope. On Elysium they have “magic pod”-like machines that cure one of all diseases, a fascinating object that closes the film with derision. In order to survive, Max has to reach Elysium – otherwise he would die. This journey is duly complicated by the circumstances of Elysium, where a hardliner official named Delacourt is intent on keeping Elysium as far removed from the impoverished citizenry of Earth as possible. Elysium’s ultimate Achilles’ heel is its odd inability to address the complex issues it tackles with complexity. The ending more than any other scene encapsulates this. The resolution to the several plot lines addressing issues that are so prevalent in the world today is so absurdly simple, when the screen goes black you just stare in ardent disbelief. Not that I’m asking for a massive resolution here, but there is little to suggest in the film’s entire running time that all that was needed to solve illegal immigration and health care were two button presses for all intents and purposes.
The acting in Elysium for the most part, but outside of Sharlto Copley, no performance is an outstanding tour de force. Copley’s villain is absolutely terrifying and his presence on screen exudes fear in the audience. Matt Damon does a good job as the morally complicated Max, whose primary motivation is to help himself before anyone else. It’s an understandable position if not the most honest one, and Damon presents his moral struggle with sincerity. Alice Braga does a good job as a mother whose daughter’s life depends on the medical pods – her desperation and sheer terror mixed with hope is good, but isn’t given enough time to develop. Jodie Foster’s Delacourt is at moments absolutely terrifying in how cold she is, but there’s an off-and-on accent with Foster that’s a bit jarring. She should have stuck with the French (which Foster speaks with flair). There’s a sense that perhaps there is a bit more to her than the audience knows, but the audience is never precious enough to be privy to that information.
Complexity is an extreme issue in the film, but the worst offender in the entire script is oddly enough Elysium itself. The wealthy utopia suffers from an extreme lack of development, mired instead as a wish for the people of Earth and nothing else. The political structure of Elysium is very loosely explained and it is assumed that there is a democracy headed by President Patel, but no explanation is really provided. Even a five-minute expose would have been nice. As such, when Delacourt throws her line of security power, it feels completely out of place as there is no precursor to that law of power whatsoever. Outside of Delacourt, there is also little exploration of what Elysium’s citizens think about all of the impoverished individuals down on Earth. Do they hate them all? Do they feel sympathy? Empathy? Pity? Why would they keep the medicine away from billions? We never really know. The point here is made clear enough in terms of class distinctions, but there was rich (pun intended), complicated potential here, but that never materializes. The film’s running time of 109 minutes could have really used another half an hour to complicate the ending but mostly spend more time on the titular location. More scenes with Delacourt, her motivations, and clashes with President Patel would have added political and moral webs into the most one-dimensional aspect of the storyline. Elysium is never as constructed and well-built as Earth below. The irony.
All in all, Elysium feels like a massive disappointment because it was so promising to begin with. Hollywood serves up so many empty-headed films every year, Blomkamp’s latest blew in like a breath of fresh air. That was before the pollution settled in. While a couple of characters are given the spotlight, the film never explores the mindsets of the Elysium citizenry or the political structure of the “utopia”, leaving scenes where the potentially simmering political battles between the rich come across as stifling and bemusingly bizarre. Still, the film is worth a watch at least for the reason that it even gives a decent attempt at highlighting some of the more morbid issues that affect the global population as a whole and it is unapologetically political as it does so. It is also gorgeous to look at, proof that no non-sequel movie ever really needs a $250 million production budget. The performances are decent and the direction from Blomkamp is as reliable as ever. Ultimately, however, Elysium serves to be intelligent, even though that intelligence is overshadowed by a suffocating plethora of action packed into a ridiculously short running time.
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Producers: Neill Blomkamp, Bill Block, Simon Kinberg
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Music: Ryan Amon
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch
Editing: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith
Studios: Alphacore, Media Rights Capital, QED International
Distributers: TriStar Pictures
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Dates: August 7, 2013 (Taiwan), August 9, 2013 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Geek Exchange, static.ddmcdn.com, Alexis Bittar, Empire Online